Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Misinterpreted: Antichrist

          The Cannes Film Festival jury is not known for being subtle. Just take a look at the experience Antichrist had with it. The members of the jury hated Antichrist so much that they gave the film a special award for its "misogynistic overtones." Lars Von Trier, during the press conference for the film, became so frustrated with the journalists calling him misogynistic that he declared himself the greatest filmmaker of all time and left the room.

          I suppose that's one way to call your audience stupid.

          Another way to call them stupid is to make them watch a film that condemns gender expectations and the arrogance of men and, somehow, make it seem like your film is hateful toward women. How embarrassed they must be for not having understood a film's intentions. Especially a film with such clear intentions.

          Lars Von Trier is known for a lot of things, beautiful imagery, strong performances, brutal endings; however, like the Cannes jury, he is not known for his subtlety. When he wanted to make a musical about capital punishment, he made Dancer in the Dark, a film with a plot so completely contrived and unbelievable that its ultimate goal feels like a slap in the face by an unconvincing preacher.  And that's just one of his movies. Nearly all of them are of that nature.

         Including Antichrist. 

         However, instead of capital punishment, Von Trier is attacking the expectations that have been placed upon the genders. More specifically, he is attacking the centuries-old conceit that men inhabit the realm of the mind, and that women inhabit the realm of the body. Or, as Trier takes it even further, that women are nature and men are spirit.

         He is attacking these prescribed ideas by creating characters who totally embody these gender stereotypes. I suppose one could argue that he is not attacking anything. One could argue that he truly believes in these tropes, and that he is trying to show the world how much sense these ideas make.

         And for those supposing people, they have clearly never seen the end of Antichrist.

         Strange as it may sound, many of the people who criticized the film for its offensive treatment of women either walked out of their screening or never even watched the film. They researched the basic plot, gathered some dialogue from the film--as well as their hatred for Von Trier's personality--and soared off into an oasis of self-important think-piecery.

 "I'm more enlightened and progressive than this Danish, misogynistic monster!" they yelled to themselves as they typed away on their keyboards made of soy plastic.
          At least, that's what I hope is what happened. Because surely these critics did not finish the film and continue believing that Antichrist is about how terrible women are and how awesome men are.

         I suppose I should offer up the plot of the movie to those of you who have not seen it. I'll be quick.

        There are two characters--He and She--played by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg. He is a psychotherapist, She is a graduate student. The film begins with a prologue, He and She have sex as their young son, in the other room, makes his way to an open window and falls to his death. After their son's funeral, He and She deal with grief in their own ways. He, after crying at the funeral, shows very little outward emotion concerning his grief, while She is crippled by her overwhelming sense of loss. After She is released from the psych ward of the hospital, He decides that he will continue her treatment in a cabin they own in the woods. He tries to "cure" her by forcing her to confront all of her greatest fears. However, instead of helping her, the treatment seems to make her delusional and violent. And, not to give too much away, lets just say that things get out of hand.

          The film is comprised mainly of conversations between He and She. These conversations usually surround the very theme of the movie. She talks about her thesis on gynocide (spelled correctly, look it up) and how nature is Satan's church and He talks endlessly about how reasonable and intelligent he is. As the film continues, she begins to discuss how she can't stop buying into the beliefs of these Medieval philosophers whom she's been reading. She claims that women might actually be everything they've been reduced to over the centuries. He calls her crazy, that she's been brainwashed by articles she was supposed to be critical of.

          However, shortly after, He seems to be completely fine with She's drastic change in philosophy. After all, he's been acting exactly as a man is expected to act. He has shown no emotion other than anger, retained a healthy amount of arrogance, and has only succumbed to his sexual desires when his wife has forced herself upon him.

           In other words, He and She become the quintessential Medieval couple. And yes, I know how this is starting to look. What I've described from the film sounds, and definitely is, very offensive. Yet I am only describing the first two acts of the film. All of these elements are surprisingly offensive. No self-respecting feminist should ever try to defend a movie with this plot. But...

           The final scenes of the movie, particularly the final three shots, should drive home what the audience has been told all along. Lars Von Trier does not believe in what these characters are saying. It's like reading Huckleberry Finn and calling Mark Twain a racist. It just doesn't work that way. The film is so blatantly criticizing unfair gender expectations that the only way somebody could mistake the film's message is to just not watch it.

          Yes, the characters are completely offensive representations of men and women. They're supposed to be. The film's primary intention is rabble rousing. You're supposed to scream at the screen. Von Trier wants you to watch the movie through your fingers as you constantly look away in fear that you'll see something terrible. He's like that. That's just the kind of guy he is. And while the film may be trying to offend you, its ultimate goal is not offensive. It's just a difficult, painful journey.

         My problem with the film does not lie in its message because that message is actually pretty common: men and women should be treated equally by society. My problem lies in the question of audience. Who is the audience for this film?

        Who watches a Lars Von Trier film and does not already believe that men and women should be treated equally? Surely a film with such grotesque imagery and difficult subject matter is, by nature, given a very limited audience. And that limited audience, such as Cannes filmgoers, is surely caught up on modern sexual politics. Why must they need to be reminded that Medieval sexual politics were terribly impractical?
         Oh, wait, they didn't get it. You win, Lars.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Movie Review: SCRE4M

          SCRE4M is another way of saying Scream 4, which is another way of saying Scream: The Reboot. These are all acceptable titles, and I actually feel that that last title would have been more appropriate. That is because SCRE4M is really just a reboot. It is a self-aware, "meta" remake of the original Scream. That first film, if you can remember all the way back to 1996, received unusually good reviews for a teen slasher film. Most of the reviews hailed Wes Craven's direction as "fun and fresh," and carrying "a dollop of sarcasm and wit rarely seen in low-budget horror."

          Craven, the most well-known and financially stable director of the teen slasher film genre, still carries the slasher film torch all these years after the success of the Scream trilogy. And, realistically, after the success of the slasher movie genre.

          Because, let's face it, slasher movies are kind of dead. They've been replaced by shaky-cam thrillers and torture porn. The whole high-school-students-slowly-killed-by-immortal-murdering-monster thing has sort of turned into a crazy-guts-spilled-for-no-reason-by-immortal-mastermind thing.

          I suppose the question wouldn't be whether or not SCRE4M is any good, but rather is it anything new? If you're wondering whether or not the new Scream film is any good, then you are probably mistaken about what these films represent. They are not "good films." They are also not "bad films." It's hard to call it bad when, for the entire duration of the movie, it is reminding you that it has all of these rules that it must follow. And that it has no choice but to follow them. The entire charm of the series lies in this self-awareness.

        The thing is, for the first movie--released in a time where people had grown very, very weary of slasher films--audiences knew all of the rules and expected the film to be bad, being surprised mid-way through the film by its smart, post-modern plot. In other words, audiences were aware too. They were aware that the movie was aware, and everybody was on the same level.

        With SCRE4M, it feels like there is more of a disconnect between the film and its audience. Where the first film's scenes of teenagers discussing the rules of horror films felt fresh and fun, this new film's identical scenes feel more like a quota being filled. And this is where the film runs into problems.

        SCRE4M is a remake of the first film. So everything that happens in this new film is something that we have seen in the other one. With a remake comes the baggage of the original film. There MUST be an equally shocking murder in the beginning. There MUST be nerds who know too much about movies. There MUST be a good motive for the killer. The film MUST be aware of all of these rules.

        Now imagine a film that not only fills all of these quotas, but also has to acknowledge these quotas. Then imagine a remake of the film that is filling and acknowledging these quotas, and then acknowledging its acknowledgment. That means that on top of the original film's attempts at meta-narrative, this new film must also comment on the fact that it is commenting on a quota that it is also filling.

        Confused? Look at this:
SCRE4M is this caption.
            The seemingly unnecessary complexities aside, this film is definitely worth watching for fans of the other films. Most of the actors are back, and most of the reasons you liked the first ones are back as well. The beginning, while not necessarily shocking, is pretty hilarious and worthwhile anyway. And everything that follows, while a definite retread of things seen before, is sort of what you're asking for anyway when seeing the third sequel (not third film, third sequel) to any movie.

           The problem lies in the film's existence. If Wes Craven wanted to comment on the current wave of horror films, why did he decide to bring a decade old franchise out of mothballs? The original film was so charming because it was existing as a current film while commenting on one. It did the same thing that Edgar Wright's Shaun of the Dead did just a few years ago with zombie films. It is important to be a good example of the thing you're critiquing as you critique it, or your criticism feels meritless. As an aside, Shaun of the Dead is showcased in this film.

          If Wes Craven had really wanted to criticize modern horror, he should have started a new franchise. While it is funny to see characters in a reboot commenting on the fact that there are so many reboots out there, it is also incredibly tedious to go through the motions all over again. For a film that is so excited about breaking its own rules, it follows a pretty narrow formula.

          In fact, SCRE4M reveals a semi-solution to the problem about half-way through the film. In a scene where some high school kids are watching one of the Stab films, the series within a series, we learn that the fake film is directed by Robert Rodriguez. We are then shown a couple of minutes from this film, a clip actually directed by Rodriguez, and they are probably the best part of the movie. The scene is fresh, twisted, intentionally campy, and awesome.

          After that, we are brought back into the tired world of SCRE4M once again, not only aware of Craven's inability to leave a tired franchise behind, but in his inability to see that his reign as king of the  low-budget innovators has ended, succeeded by directors who are more willing to take risks like Robert Rodriguez and Edgar Wright. Which is strange, considering that both director's works are given screen time in the film.

          If you skipped everything above, here's what you need to know: if you like the Scream franchise, go see it; if you are expecting something new or innovative, you will be disappointed.

The bottom line is that the film is fine, but a real missed opportunity.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Misinterpreted: 5 Reasons Superman III Should Be A Cult Classic

They couldn't even get his cape right for the poster.
          I know what you're thinking. I thought it, too. How could one possibly misinterpret Superman III?  It seems like a pretty easy tell. But, as I'm sure you've guessed, there's more than meets the eye. Here's the reasons:

5. Lester Hates Melancholy

Told Ya
          Richard Lester, having won the battle of the Richards for Superman II, went on to make his first (and last) full directorial effort of a Superman film with Superman III. Lester decided to continue on with a more comedic tone, like his scenes in the second film, and figured that Richard (yet another Richard) Pryor would help him achieve it. Richard Lester takes all of the happiness and lightheartedness one can hope for from a comic book film and injects it with even more silliness. After all, Richard Lester did direct A Hard Day's Night. 
          Unlike Richard Donner, whose Superman film begins with a 1 hour tribute to the sadness of everything forever, Richard Lester crafted a movie that was able to end with a crazed robot woman fighting Richard Pryor as Superman is zapped by a green kryptonite laser from a supercomputer that doesn't understand acid.

4. Richard Pryor's Funny Hat

A Real Screenshot from Superman III
        One does not just place Richard Pryor into a superhero film and expect miracles to take place. Especially if he is being placed into the film as some sort of villain figure. This just could not possibly work. And it doesn't. Except for the hat, that is.
          Pryor is stuck in a sanitized film where he is not free to explore his character or share his signature, brilliant use of expletives. Instead, Pryor plays a computer criminal/unemployment scam artist. The film begins with a lengthy scene where Pryor, at the unemployment office, is told that he has scammed the government too many times and that he will not receive another check. Immediately following this news, he finds out that he can take a class on computers. Within days, Pryor has learned how to generate tornadoes in Colombia, South America via satellite
        It's safe to say that Richard Pryor's character adds, simultaneously, nothing and everything to this movie. Without him, we would have had a dull, meandering tale where Superman kind of falls in love with a single mother after attending a high school reunion. With Richard Pryor we get a dull, meandering tale where we believe that Richard Pryor can fall off of an 80-story building on skis and live. I pick Pryor. And his scenes, while disarmingly un-Pryor-esque, are still absolutely the most interesting and entertaining sections of the film. Well, almost...

3. Superman Gets Extremely Drunk

          There is a scene in Superman III where Superman gets very drunk, flicks cashews at a bar mirror, and tells a kid that he hates him. Also, he straightens out the leaning tower of Pisa just to piss off the guy selling the souvenirs out front. Yep, Superman turns into exactly how you would act if you were from Krypton. His hair gets streaks of gray, his cape gets darker, and he tells a woman who is about to jump off of a building that she "should go ahead." Apparently he's not in the saving lives business anymore.
          The best part about all of this, other than everything I have told you so far, is the explanation behind this sudden change in character. Apparently, Superman becomes a total douche because he is given Kryptonite that only damages his sense of morality. Because that totally makes sense. It's sort of like how when poison doesn't kill you, it makes you hit people in the face. Whatever the reason, that ten minute period of the film might be the best thing ever.

2. Computers Are Magic

AT-AT Cockpit
          Superman III's writers had no idea of how computers worked when they wrote the screenplay. To them, Richard Pryor could use a basic word processor to contact a satellite to create a tornado in Colombia, South America. They also believed that a word processor could manipulate cars, traffic lights, international oil tankers, airplanes, and various spacecraft. In the world of Superman III, a simple weekend seminar on data processing can teach you how to control everything on the planet by typing the word "list" and hitting enter.
         Once you get past the hilarity of believing in the existence of Superman more than the plausibility of the computers in this film, you should sigh a deep, deep sigh of relief. This is because you are watching a movie that literally believes that computers are magic. And that is refreshing. There was once a time where computers were these magical plot devices that only existed to do unbelievably evil, and unbelievably awesome, things to everybody. Well, technically, this was a plot device that was revisited in Live Free or Die Hard, but I think that movie at least acted like those things were plausible-- Olyphant using the internet, and not a normal word processor, after all.

1. Superman Beats the Crap Out of Clark

In the Ear!
           What is better than that? Whenever you see Clark unable to open a bottle, stop himself from asking out Lois, or allow himself to be treated like a human doormat, what do you want to do? Hit him in the face. Not because he sucks, but because that is genuinely what he needs. The guy is Superman. His alter-ego does not need to be 100% lame in order to throw people off of the scent. Any regular dude next to Superman is going to be lame--Clark is just pathetic. So when we see Superman give Clark a beat down, we raise our hands in triumph.
           Yes, I know that Clark isn't real. He's even more not real than Superman, but he still reflects the human side of Superman. And the human side of Superman is a wet blanket. When we see Clark die in a horrible junkyard automobile compactor incident, we rejoice. It is as if the hand of God has backhanded Clark into a premature death because he is just an embarrassing man to watch. However, once Clark breaks out of his Fortress of Gimpitude, he unleashes a furious assault on evil Superman ends with him vaporizing Superman with his choke hold.
          The only thing manlier than vaporizing Superman with your choke hold is ordering all the bacon and eggs in the entire restaurant because your steak isn't big enough.

           I think you should all give Superman III another shot. Because, strangely enough, it is actually kind of awesome. It may not be the epic epicness of Donner's efforts, but it is really, really not trying to be. Instead, it is just a bunch of short films tacked together to create one infinitely hilarious cult classic.